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Three questions the Cleveland Cavaliers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 51-31, won the Eastern Conference out of the second seed, lost to Warriors in NBA Finals.

I know what you did last summer: It was a busy summer of roster changes, something you don’t usually see from a team that has been to three straight Finals. Kyrie Irving didn’t want to be the guy left behind if LeBron James bolts the team next summer, so he pushed for a trade. New GM Koby Altman struck a deal that sent Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn first-round pick in the upcoming draft. In the past week, the Cavaliers signed Dwyane Wade as a free agent (after his buyout from Chicago). Gone from the Cavaliers are Deron Williams and James Jones, but the team added depth with the trade and the additions of free agents Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Jose Calderon.

THREE QUESTIONS THE CAVALIERS MUST ANSWER

1) When does Isaiah Thomas get back on the court? And how well can he move? The trade with Boston was a perfect combination for Cleveland of keeping an eye on the future (the Brooklyn pick) and still winning now in LeBron’s prime by getting All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas — if Thomas is healthy. Which he is not right now. The hip injury that ended his playoff run early still has him sidelined.

When will he return? On media day the Cavaliers were honest and said January. About halfway through the NBA season. Which creates a challenge for those first 40 games or so (see the next question) but is not insurmountable because the Cavaliers have one LeBron James.

The bigger question: How good will Isaiah Thomas be when he does return? I fear we saw peak Thomas last season, when he was an All-NBA player and fifth in MVP voting. How well with Thomas move when he returns, how explosive will he be? Can he be anything like the spark plug point guard we have come to know? His game is based on that athleticism and crafty moves, if those are limited so is he. It matters to Cleveland as they try to integrate him into the offense for the playoffs — if they get 90 percent of that Thomas it is a big boost for the Cavs, but if it’s 70 percent things get tougher. How he bounces back also matters to Thomas, who is a free agent after this season and needs to show he is healthy to get paid anywhere near what he wants.

2) Cleveland has a lot of talent, but does it fit together? On paper, the Cavaliers are deeper this season — Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose at the point, J.R. Smith, Dwyane Wade, and Kyle Korver at the two, Jeff Green behind LeBron on the wing, Jae Crowder adding to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson up front. There’s a reason I — and many others — are still picking the Cavaliers to come out of the East.

But when you start to put rotations together, things get harder, because all the talent doesn’t fit together well, especially for the first half of the season when Thomas is out. For example, can the Cavaliers really play Rose and Wade together with LeBron? Neither Rose nor Wade are good off the ball, they need the rock in their hands to create to do damage, but neither of them is near the creator or floor general LeBron is. Do the Cavs take the ball out of LeBron’s hands in this scenario? Remember, this is not the Wade from LeBron’s first couple seasons in Miami, this is a guy on the decline who can still create but is limited in other ways. Plus, both Rose and Wade (and Thomas when he returns) are limited defensively.

I like what Tyronn Lue is doing to start games: Rose, J.R. Smith, LeBron, Jae Crowder, and Kevin Love. That is a switchable and passable defensive lineup that will have great floor spacing on offense. Rose can create a little, but most of that should still fall to LeBron. It gets better when Thomas is back and Rose can go to the second unit with Wade — those two can do the shot creating and scoring with that group against other benches, and Tristan Thompson can handle the defense and dirty work with that unit. (Credit Thompson for taking his move to the second unit, which most would see as a demotion, as an opportunity.)

Cleveland has the talent to beat 28 other teams in a seven-game series, but the questions of fit come back to haunt them against their biggest foe. If the Cavs are still playing in June.

3) Does the “is LeBron staying?” saga weigh on the team? Probably not. Or at least not much. This is a team of veterans who know how to shut out the noise from the outside.

However, every move this team and LeBron make all season will be viewed through the prism of “what does this say about LeBron’s future?” And if for whatever reason this team gets off to a relatively slow start and things start to go sideways, that pressure will ramp up. If that losing starts to creep into the locker room — J.R. Smith and Crowder get into it again, Thompson gets frustrated with his bench role, or a million other things — then it becomes a problem. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it’s possible. This could be LeBron’s final season in Cleveland, and that certainly can become an issue.

LeBron James drops 31, leads Lakers comeback to beat Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists and the Los Angeles Lakers rode a big third quarter to a a 124-115 win over the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

The Lakers bounced back after a loss to Orlando on Wednesday night that snapped their nine-game winning streak. The loss was the third straight for the Rockets, which ties a season high, and they have dropped four of five.

Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points, and Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20 for the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook scored 35 points for his fourth straight 30-point game and James Harden had 34 for the Rockets, who also lost three in a row in late November.

Los Angeles didn’t lead in the first half but used a 32-point third quarter to take a nine-point lead into the fourth.

Houston used a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 10 with about seven minutes left, but the Lakers scored the next six points to extend it to 110-94 midway through the quarter. That sent many Rockets fans streaming for the exits and caused a large contingent of Lakers fans to start chanting, “Let’s go Lakers.”

The Rockets did not get closer than seven points the rest of the way.

The Lakers opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 69-68, with about eight minutes left in the third quarter. James capped that run by making a basket and then added another one seconds later after JaVale McGee blocked a dunk attempt by Clint Capela. McGee beat his chest and screamed after in Capela’s direction after the play and received a technical foul for taunting.

There were about seven minutes left in the third when Westbrook and Anthony Davis, who missed the game with an injury, both received technical fouls for jawing at each other.

The Lakers led by three later in the third when Kuzma scored the first four points of a 9-2 run that stretched the lead to 85-75.

Houston had a chance to cut the deficit at the end of the third quarter, but Westbrook missed two free throws to leave the Lakers up 91-82 entering the fourth.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.